The Power of Prayer

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

(painting by Elisheva Shira)

Blessing CandlesThis week, the Supreme Court of the United States began to establish Christianity as the preferred religion of our country. I am sure that I am not the only one who is distressed by this turn of events. According to Justice Anthony Kennedy, I should just ignore any prayers which don’t reflect my theology; those who “feel excluded or disrespected” by such religious invocations could simply ignore them. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable,” he said. The 5 members of the majority opinion are all practicing Catholics.

For the minority opinion (3 Jews and a non-practicing Catholic), Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or other. They should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”

An established state/governmental religion has historically been bad for the Jews. And I would say to Justice Kennedy that I don’t find Christian prayers disagreeable for Christians. Folks can pray in their churches however they believe reflects their theology and community. It’s the government-sponsored part that is problematic. It’s also problematic to be told to ignore feelings of exclusion or disrespect, as if these were part of the imagination of a troublesome child.

I’m of the opinion that prayer is meant to bind us together as a community, not tear us apart. In a country of many religious beliefs, keeping the peace often means praying separately. In the Kaddish, the prayer of holiness that Jews recite, it is recognized that “God is beyond all blessings, hymns, and praises which people render.” God doesn’t need our prayers. We need prayers to help us connect with each other through shared words, melodies, and concepts, bringing a sense of spirituality and connection with the oneness that is the mystery of the universe. It is difficult, if not impossible, for all Americans to pray as one when we have such vastly different beliefs in God and ways of practicing our religious traditions. This is where the myth of a ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ falls flat on its face. Judaism and Christianity are different from each other even though we have a sacred text in common. It saddens me that the Supreme Court majority has ignored this so brazenly.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

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